Will the Italians walk free after 18 March Piravom bypoll? (Sunday Guardian)
Although tight-lipped on the identity of those contacted, authoritative sources say that Italian diplomats in Rome and Delhi have been "in daily contact" with two "influential MPs of the Congress party" about an early release of the two Italian Navy personnel suspected of having killed two Indian fishermen on 15 February. One of the MPs is learnt to have contacted a senior Union Cabinet Minister about the incident, who in turn is learnt to have called Chief Minister Oommen Chandy of Kerala, relaying a request to give the Italian authorities "primacy" in the investigation of the case and action taken against the two military personnel. Chandy is reported to have warned that any leniency to the two suspects "would cost the UDF the Piravom bypoll", scheduled for 18 March. The UDF has a wafer-thin majority of two over the LDF in the 140-member Kerala Assembly, with the Opposition having 68 MLAs.
These sources say that the two "influential" MPs (whose identities remain undisclosed) have told the Italian side about the political difficulties involved in a pre-18 March release of the two navy personnel into Italian custody, but that "the Italian side is adamant that they should be set free from Indian control immediately". Sources in Rome say that the naval ratings, in common with other NATO military personnel, "have been used to a culture of impunity". In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other theatres where NATO operates, "mistakes" that involve the killing of innocents are frequent, and mostly go unrecorded. "The two may have believed that as NATO personnel, they would have the same protection they have in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya when shooting at civilians," the Italian source claimed. The source in Italy added that there have been "over a dozen telephone calls and two secret meetings" between the two Indian MPs and Italian authorities since the incident, and that there is "quiet confidence" in Rome that the two naval personnel will head home soon after the Piravom bypoll. "The arguments of the prosecution can be couched in such a way (after the bypoll) as to assist them to get bail. Once that happens, they can leave the country and not return," an official close to the situation claimed.
Sources in Kerala say that it was because of "high-level involvement" on behalf of the Italians that the Kerala police "refused to conduct interrogations or secure evidence (such as the weapons from which the fatal shots were alleged to have been fired) for three days after the incident. During this time, according to the Italian source, "evidence onboard has been sanitised and a cover story perfected". According to him, the story is that there was another ship — actually a pirate vessel — with nearly a dozen armed men on board that first approached the Italian tanker. When the naval security guards came back with weapons, "that ship had disappeared and the fishing boat appeared". What followed was, in the rendering perfected onboard during the three days when the Kerala police were cooling their heels onshore, "a tragic accident". The source claimed that the story of the second boat was "pure fiction", but that it was hoped that it "would be enough for the Indian authorities to release the two Italians".
Will the two Italians walk free after 18 March, the date when the Piravom bypoll takes place? Only time will tell. Clearly, the 79-hour delay of the Kerala police in taking custody of the two alleged culprits indicates some degree of pressure from a level far above Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who from the start has been in favour of exemplary punishment to those found guilty of the murder of two innocents. Because of the delay, evidence may have been destroyed and the case against those allegedly responsible weakened. About the Italian claim that the firing took place "in self-defence", it needs to be remembered that the tiny fishing vessel was unarmed, and nine of the eleven crew members were asleep when they were presumed to be launching an attack on the huge tanker.